An Interview with James Rollins (June, 2011)

An Interview with James Rollins

James Rollins is the bestselling author of numerous books, including Excavation, Amazonia, and his popular Sigma series, including Black Order, and The Doomsday Key. He has been interviewed on BookBanter previously, which you can listen to here.

Alex C. Telander: What were the starting “ideas” that led to writing Devil Colony?

James Rollins: It started with an argument.  I have several friends who are Mormons, and at a dinner, I overheard a heated discussion among them about a controversial and contested section of the Book of Mormon:  specifically that the Native Americans are said to be descendants from one of the ten lost tribes of Israel.  While on face value this seems like a wild claim, and genetics certainly seems to dismiss this possibility, I was intrigued—and it started a yearlong investigation into Native American history, Jewish lore, and the early founding of America.  To my total surprise, gathering information from disparate sources, pieces began to fall together in a most startling fashion.  Why hadn’t anyone put these pieces together before? Not only were these resources valid and the facts gathered backed by solid research, but they came together so perfectly that the picture that finally came to light had to be true—astoundingly and disturbingly true.  It alters all we understand about American history.  I knew I had to tell this story.

Alex: You have an unusual method in coming up with storylines with your “box of ideas.”  What’s your process when you have each of these elements – do you start researching each of them, or do you just start writing?

James: I definitely have to research and play with the idea in my head a bit.  Often I’ll take odd bits and pieces out of that box and, on first glance, it will appear that they might connect and make a good story—but once I start to research more deeply, I’ll find out I’m wrong, or it will lead me to an entirely different story.  So I definitely research and build a bare-bones outline before I even begin to write.

Alex: Do you do a lot of plotting and outlining when writing a novel, or do you prefer to let your fingers do the work?

James: Some outlining is necessary.  I definitely know the beginning, middle, and end (often I even know the very last line…which is the case in The Devil Colony).  But beyond that my “outline” is really just a sketch.  I know several of the steppingstones throughout the novel, but I don’t necessarily know how A connects to B connects to C.  I’d rather discover that part of the story as I write.  It is in the “between” places of my outline that the true magic often happens.

Alex: Do you have a particular routine for tying each of your story elements together, or do you just hope it’ll work out when you get towards the end?

James: That’s one of the reasons I do build the sketch of an outline.  It’s that built in security blanket.  It’s easy to get lost in a novel without knowing where you want to end up.  Also without at least some roadmap in place, an author can find himself leaning too much on coincidence or hand-of-god resolutions to get out of a jam.  I strive to avoid that at every turn.

Alex: What do you hope readers get out of reading Devil Colony, other than a good story?

James: The number one goal:  entertainment.   I try to craft a story that is as much of a rollercoaster as it is a thriller.  But ultimately for a story to have some resonance, I believe it should leave the reader with something to think about after he or she turns that last page.  It’s one of the reasons at the end of each novel, I lay out what’s true and what’s not in the book.  In The Devil Colony, I raise questions about the founding of this country, specifically the role that Native Americans played in that formation.  Some of the most startling revelations are true.  But I also broach topics about the dangers of nanotechnology, about a geological disaster brewing out West, and about mysteries at the heart of the Book of Mormon.

Alex: Why do you think the controversial subjects you discuss in Devil Colony have been kept hidden?

James: Winston Churchill once stated, “History is written by the victors.”  And that may be the case here.  Every school kid can recite the list of Founding Fathers:  Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, etc.  They had one thing in common:  they were all white men.  But there is an untold story to the founding of this country—one buried in secrets and lies.  The biggest secret:  there was a lost Founding Father of this country, someone buried in history.  Even those well-known founders refused to completely erase this man and left behind clues to his existence, clues hidden within the heart of the Great Seal of the United States.

But how many people know about ANY this?  The truth I discovered is as shocking as it is real…and needs to be finally told.

Alex: Your character, Gray Pierce, has to deal with some personal family matters in the book that makes the story all the more believable.  Was there a particular reason for this?

James: When we first met Gray six books ago, he was dealing with his father’s early Alzheimer’s.  Over the course of the series, his father has been slowly getting worse.  In this book, that issue comes to a head—as it does with many families in similar circumstances.  And unfortunately, I personally understand Gray’s dilemma all too well.

Alex: You visited a number of the locations in The Doomsday Key.  Have you visited any in Devil Colony?

James: I visited all of the locations in the book except for two:  the volcanic islands of Iceland and the neutrino lab in Japan.  But I was just invited by my Icelandic publisher to do a book tour there, so I hope to get a chance to visit the island featured in the novel, a volcanic island known as the Pompeii of the North.

Alex: How about the catacombs of Paris from “The Skeleton Key”?

James: I did tour the Paris catacombs.  As a caver, how could I miss exploring beneath the City of Lights?  Unfortunately it was a tourist tour, which only travels a very small, well-mapped section of those catacombs.  Beyond that, there is a vast network of tunnels and rooms—two hundred miles of them—that are only visited by trespassers, called cataphiles, who venture in secret down into those unmapped regions.  I’d love to go down with them someday.

Alex: Do you plan to write more on this unique and unforgettable location?

James: I’m sure I will.  As I was researching this short story, I learned about a hundred other mysteries and intriguing details about the catacombs, too much to stuff into a short story.  So don’t be surprised if Sigma doesn’t end up amid those ancient bones and dark tunnels.

Alex: How many books will it be before we find out who the Guild really are?

James: In The Devil Colony, you learn much about the Guild, the shadowy criminal organization that has been plaguing Sigma Force throughout the series—specifically the revelations in this book center on the Guild’s past.  In next summer’s book, you will learn what they’re planning for the future.  That coming book will resolve the Guild story arc in the series, and trust me, that end is full of surprises.

Alex: You recently went on a trip to Disneyland.  What’s your favorite ride you like to go on again and again, and why?

James: I’m a rollercoaster junkie—and while California Adventure Park has a new coaster, I’m still in love with Space Mountain.   It’s probably one of the reasons I write rollercoasters today.

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